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Sunday, 26 July 2015

Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Real Madrid and Barcelona really are the best, aren't they?

I recently finished Fear and Loathing in La Liga, an account of the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry written by Sid Lowe, who covers Spanish football for, among others, the Guardian. I first became acquainted with Sid's work through the Guardian Football Weekly podcast, and then his weekly column rounding up the latest doings in Spanish football.

I'm not the biggest fan of Spanish football, of course. I've spoken before of how boring I find it that La Liga is effectively dominated by only two teams, and always has been. Looking through the lists of championships for other countries, you do typically see one team that's dominated (rather than two), but you also see that other teams have had periods of dominance, sometimes for large parts of decades - for example, the Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 80s. In other leagues teams rise, shine for a while, then fall.

Not so in Spain. In recent memory, the longest the league's gone without either Real or Barça winning it was 4 years in the 80s, when Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad won it twice apiece. The only longer streak when neither won it was for the five years right after the Civil War, or eight if you count the three seasons before war broke out (La Liga was suspended during that time). Those streaks drop to two years if you look for seasons when Real or Barça failed to make the top two spots.

Which is why Lowe's book is a history of the league, as well - Spanish football makes little sense outside the framework of Real vs Barça. He does a good job of picking apart the politics that have latched on to the rivalry, of Catalonia vs Spain, of left-wing vs right-wing, and the different sides in the Civil War. Barcelona fans tend to think of themselves as representing the left, and of Real as being Francisco Franco's pet team - but Lowe shows how much more complicated the reality, especially now that we're 40 years on from Franco's death and 35 since Spain opened to the rest of Europe.

Of course, Real has always been one of my favorite teams to hate, since the first time I saw them was in the 1998 Champions League victory over my hometown team of Juventus. I was only too willing to buy into the propaganda of Barcelona as mes que un club (more than a club), with their Dutch influence and, until a few years ago, their shirt sponsorship deal with Unicef, rather than a traditional for-profit entity.

Admittedly, they've gone and ruined that a bit by getting sponsored by Qatar, of all places, but that didn't stop me enjoying the two epic dismantlings of Manchester United, in 2009 and 2011. The latter of the two I watched in a pub in Bath with my dad, and it was hard not to cheer to see entertaining, passing football win out against kick-and-rush.

What really struck me about the book, though, was how different the narrative in Spain was for the post-war period compared with Italy or Germany, or even the UK. This is, of course, because Spain remained neutral during the war; even though Franco was greatly influenced by Mussolini and Hitler, and benefited from their weapons and materiel during the Civil War, he didn't send Spanish troops to participate, and so was left alone in 1945.

As I read Fear and Loathing, I couldn't help wondering what Italian history would have been like if Mussolini had done the same thing. There was an Italian author a few years ago who imagined just such a scenario, in which Italy thereby became a European and even a world power, but I doubt it would have happened like that (after all, Spain isn't exactly a power-player these days). It took a while, but Germany eventually faced up to its role in World War II; Spain, meanwhile, let its own Fascist dictatorship run its course (and was enormously lucky that King Juan Carlos, Franco's successor, turned out to favor democracy). Italy, by contrast, did neither, which is why Mussolini's legacy continues to distort Italian politics - sometimes literally, as in the case of his granddaughter Alessandra.

Back to the football, though, I'd say the greatest disappointment of Sid Lowe's book is how he glosses over the last few years. I suppose this couldn't be any other way, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are probably harder to get interviews with than greats from the past, like Hristo Stoichkov or Alfredo di Stefano. But it's still a shame not to have more on how the current situation, where Messi and Ronaldo seem to break each other's records every week, looks as an extension of the past.

Still, it's not hard to draw your own conclusions. Real and Barça long ago outgrew the rest of the Spanish league, such that they compete on European Cups. This year's Barça triumph against Juventus, and last year's Real win against hometown rivals Atletico, are just an extension of the rivalry - effectively, Barcelona saying to Real, "You may have more European Cups than anybody, you may have won your tenth, but we've been catching up."

With that in mind, it's hard to see when the rest of Europe catching up - there have been years when Real or Barça have lost, but seen through Sid Lowe's book, those are looking more and more like blips.  After all, even during England's dominance in the Champions League, Barcelona won every time it got to the final.

It'd be nice to see the rest of Europe catch up, but even if they don't, at least Real and Barça will provide good entertainment.